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Authors: Alexander Kent

Heart of Oak

BOOK: Heart of Oak
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1818: The war with France has ended.
Captain Adam Bolitho is given command of the newly commissioned frigate
and sent to North Africa on a diplomatic mission to accompany the French frigate
in a show of solidarity. He knows he is lucky—the voyage should be easy, but Adam longs for a chance to marry the beautiful Lowenna and settle down on the Bolitho estate in Cornwall. Instead he must deal with the envy and ambition of his officers, hidden agendas among his men, and the former enemy’s proximity. Then the
becomes a sacrificial offering on the altar of Empire, and the hunt is on for a treacherous foe. Suddenly every man must discover for himself whether the brotherhood of the sea can transcend old hatreds and an ocean of blood.

In this latest Bolitho novel from the master of nautical adventure Adam Bolitho faces one of the most difficult decisions of his career. Will he find the courage and resourcefulness he needs when diplomacy fails and treachery cries out for vengeance?

Cover painting by Geoffrey Huband. Cover & text designed by Panda.

The Bolitho Novels by Alexander Kent

The Complete Midshipman Bolitho

Stand Into Danger

In Gallant Company

Sloop of War

To Glory We Steer

Command a King’s Ship

Passage to Mutiny

With All Despatch

Form Line of Battle!

Enemy in Sight!

The Flag Captain

Signal—Close Action!

The Inshore Squadron

A Tradition of Victory

Success to the Brave

Colours Aloft!

Honour This Day

The Only Victor

Beyond the Reef

The Darkening Sea

For My Country’s Freedom

Cross of St George

Sword of Honour

Second to None

Relentless Pursuit

Man of War

Heart of Oak

Alexander Kent


: 27

McBooks Press, Inc.
, NY

Published by McBooks Press 2008
Copyright © 2007 Bolitho Maritime Productions
First published in the United Kingdom by Heinemann Books 2007

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without the written permission of the publisher. Requests for such permissions should be addressed to McBooks Press, Inc., ID Booth Building, 520 North Meadow St., Ithaca, NY 14850.

Cover Painting: Geoffrey Huband
Cover and Text Design: Panda Musgrove

ISBN: 978-1-59013-148-0

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Kent, Alexander.
   Heart of oak / by Alexander Kent.
        p. cm. — (The Bolitho novels #27)
   ISBN 978-1-59013-137-4 (alk. paper)
 1. Bolitho, Adam (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Great Britain—History, Naval—
 19th century—Fiction. I. Title.
   PR6061.E63H43 2007


The e-book versions of this title have the following ISBNs:
Kindle 978-1-59013-246-3, ePub 978-1-59013-291-3 and PDF 978-1-59013-380-4


Just for you, Kim, with my love

If my voice should die on land,
take it to sea-level
and leave it on the shore.
Take it to sea-level
and make it captain
of a white ship of war.
Oh my voice adorned
with naval insignia:
on the heart an anchor,
and on the anchor a star,
and on the star the wind,
and on the wind the sail!

translated from the Spanish by Mark Strand)


hesitated at the brow of a low hill, its wheels jerking and spinning against yet another ridge of frozen mud. The horses, four-in-hand, took the strain, stamping with frustration, their breath steaming in the pale, misty sunlight. They, more than any, were aware that their part of the journey was almost over.

It was February and still bitterly cold, as it had been since this year of 1818 had first dawned. Longer than that, many would say along Cornwall’s southern approaches. Trees like black bones, as if they would never throw a leaf or bud again; slate walls and the occasional farm roof like polished metal. The coachman, big and shapeless in his heavily caped coat, flicked the reins. No urgency, no haste; he knew his horses and the road as he knew his own strength. His passengers and baggage took second place.

At the rear of the coach, the guard, equally unrecognizable under layers of clothing and an old blanket, wiped his eyes and stared across the straining horses and saw a flock of gulls rise from somewhere, circling, perhaps looking for food as the vehicle rolled past. The sea was never far away. The horses were changed at the authorized stables, but he and the driver had been with the coach all the way from Plymouth. He shifted his buttocks to restore the circulation to his limbs and felt the pressure of his gun beneath the blanket. The coach carried mail as well as passengers, and the crest emblazoned on either door proclaimed risk as well as pride.

Up and around the bleak waste of Bodmin Moor he had seen a few ragged, scarecrow figures still hanging at the roadside. Left to rot and the ravages of the crows as a warning to any would-be robber or highwayman. But there would always be some one.

He saw the coachman raise his fist. Nothing more. No more was necessary.

Another stretch of broken track. He swore under his breath. Somebody should get the convicts out of their warm cells to repair it. There were no longer any French prisoners of war for such work. Waterloo was almost four years ago, becoming nothing more than a memory to those who had been spared the risk and the pain.

He banged on the roof. “’Old on below!”

One of the passengers was a young woman. The violent motion of the coach, despite its new springs, had made her vomit several times. It had meant stopping, much to the annoyance of the man with her, her father. She was with child. Lucky to have got this far, the guard thought. The horses were slowing their pace, ears twitching, waiting for a word or a whistle. He saw some farm gates, one sagging into the ground. Did the farmer not know, or care? He loosened the case containing the long horn, to announce their approach. The last leg…

There was a frantic tapping on the roof. She was going to be sick again.

The horses were getting back into their stride, the wheels running more smoothly on the next piece of road. They would be thinking of their stables. The tapping had stopped.

He raised the horn and moistened it with his tongue. It was like ice.

Inside the coach it was not much warmer, despite the sealed windows and the blue leather cushions. There were blankets too, although with the motion it had been hard to keep them in place.

Midshipman David Napier wedged his shoulder into his seat and watched the passing trees reaching out as if to claw at the window, the paler shapes of a house or barn looming in the background.

It was not his imagination: the sky was already darker. He must have fallen asleep, despite his troubled thoughts and the swoop and jerk of the vehicle. He had forgotten how many times they had pulled off the road, to change horses and take a few steps to ease mind and body. Or to allow the young woman who sat opposite him to find refuge behind a bush or tree.

And her father, his impatience, even anger at each delay. They had stopped overnight at a small inn somewhere outside St Austell. Even that seemed unreal. A hard bench seat and a hasty meal, alone in a tiny room above the stableyard. Voices singing, and drunken laughter, ending eventually in a mixture of threats and curses, which had only added to Napier’s sense of loss and uncertainty.

He winced, and realized he had been gripping his leg beneath the blanket. The deep wound was ever ready to remind him. And it was not a dream or a nightmare.
It was now.

More houses were passing, some in shadow. A harder, firmer road, the wheels clattering evenly, and then the sudden blare of the horn. Louder this time, thrown back from solid walls.

He licked his lips and imagined they tasted of salt. Twice he had seen the glint of water, the land folding away, final.

The other passenger, who had scarcely spoken all the way from Plymouth, jerked upright in his seat and peered around.

“Are we there?” He sniffed and stifled a cough. A thin, stooped figure, dressed in black: a lawyer’s senior clerk, he had disclosed. He carried a leather case, heavily sealed, probably documents, and obviously not intended even for his own eyes.

“Coming into Falmouth now.” Napier watched the buildings, some already showing lights.

The clerk sniffed again. “Of course, you sailors always know your way about, don’t you?” He chuckled, but seized the case as it threatened to slip from his lap.

Napier stared through the window. The coach had passed a church in Plymouth; he vaguely remembered it from that last visit, when their ship, the frigate
, had come home to carry out repairs, battle damage from the Algiers attack, and to be paid off. And forgotten, except by those who had served in her. Those who had survived.

Like her captain, Adam Bolitho, who, despite the strains of combat and command and the stark news of dismissal, had kept the promise he had made that day in Plymouth.

Fore Street, and the tailor’s establishment, where Napier had barely been able to believe what was happening. The tailor beaming and rubbing his hands, asking the captain what he required.

Your services for this young gentleman. Measure him for a midshipman’s uniform.
So calmly said, but with one hand on Napier’s shoulder, which had made it a moment he would never forget.

This was not the same uniform; he had been fitted out again in Antigua, where the old Jacks said you could get all you needed, if you had the money in your purse.

His first ship as a midshipman, the frigate
, had been blown apart by heated shot from the shore artillery at San José. The memories were a blur. The roar of gunfire, men screaming and dying…then in the water…the madness, men still able to cheer as the flagship had closed with the enemy. To attack. To win. Captain Bolitho’s ship.

He had scarcely had time to get to know most of
’s company. Like a family. The navy’s way. Those you would fight for…he thought of the dead midshipman on the beach, when he had dragged him ashore after the bombardment. And those you would always hate.

He closed his mind to it, like slamming a door. It was in the past. But the future?

The coach was slowing, taking a wide bend in the road. In his mind’s eye he could see the old grey house, anticipating the warmth and the welcome. Wanting to feel a part of it, like one of them. Like a dream.

He touched his leg again. Suppose a dream was all it had been?

Doors opening, horses stamping on cobbles, snorting as men ran to unfasten the harnesses, some one waving, a woman hurrying to throw her arms around the girl who had been so sick. The lawyer’s clerk gesturing to the guard, saying something about baggage, but still clinging to his sealed case.

Napier peered up at the inn sign.
The Spaniards.
Again, like a voice from the past.

The horses were gone, the coach standing abandoned. He saw his midshipman’s chest on the cobbles with an inn servant stooping to look at the label.

The guard joined him. His burly companion had already vanished into the taproom. “End o’ the road. For us, it is.” He glanced around. “You bein’ met? It’s no place to stand an’ freeze!”

Napier felt in his pocket for some coins. “No. Can I leave my chest here?”

He did not hear the answer. He was trying to think, clearly, coldly. He would walk to the house. He had done it with Luke Jago, the captain’s coxswain. The hard man, who had taken him out to
, and shouted his name as if he were enjoying it.
“Come aboard to join!”

He felt now for the warrant with its scarlet seal of authority, which the young flag lieutenant had given him as he left the ship at Plymouth two days ago.

“Come along. We haven’t got all day!”

Napier turned and saw the foul-tempered passenger beckoning to his daughter. He had remarked loudly on Napier’s arrival that it was hardly fitting for a mere midshipman to travel in the same coach. The coachman had been unable to conceal his satisfaction when Napier had showed him the warrant bearing the vice-admiral’s seal.

BOOK: Heart of Oak
10.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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